Defeated by the Accreditors: The Rise and Fall of Big-Time Football at Centre College, 1915–1926
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Defeated by the Accreditors:
The Rise and Fall of Big-Time Football at Centre College, 1915–1926

The Centre College football team of the early 1920s fits a well-worn narrative that has inspired countless novels, movies, and television shows: a team of plucky small-town underdogs rise from nowhere to defeat the powerful team from the big city. Centre's tale has several staples of that genre, including the perseverance to withstand an early setback when it fell short of defeating mighty Harvard, only to return the following year to win in a shocking upset. The story includes the requisite cast of characters, including a charismatic star quarterback whose aw-shucks public persona masks a steely resolve, a supporting cast of teammates with colorful stories of their own, a hard-bitten coach who left the profession only to return after a fortuitous encounter with this talented collection of players, and a college president who leads the team in pregame prayers. The tale even has a perfect Hollywood ending: the quarterback caps his storied career by marrying his high school sweetheart on the day of his final game. The decline and fall of the Centre Praying Colonels plays out after the final credits roll, but the legend still lives among Centre students and alumni, many Kentuckians, and quite a few football fans born generations after the events. A number of media outlets have rated Centre's 1921 victory over Harvard as one of the greatest upsets in college football history. While the narrative itself is compelling, Centre's rise and fall also offers rich lines of analysis to historians examining Kentucky history, the social history of the [End Page 471] South and of the United States, and the symbiotic but uneasy relationship between big-time athletic programs and the institutions of higher education in whose names they compete. After a few years of glory, Centre College became a sacrificial lamb in the backlash against the excessive commercialization of football that seized the minds of educational and athletic reformers of the 1920s, even though that battle had been lost decades earlier.1

Centre's unlikely path to greatness began with the decision by the Centre Board of Trustees in May 1915 to hire William A. Ganfield as president. A Presbyterian minister and professor of history and economics at Carroll College in Wisconsin, Ganfield brought a badly needed energy and vision to Centre. The vice president of the Carroll Board of Trustees declared that Ganfield's "magnetic presence" brought "spirit and animation, delight and joy, determination and strength" to many aspects of campus life, including athletics. A youthful forty-two when he arrived at Centre, Ganfield had a Roman nose, a shock of thick white hair that he parted neatly in the middle, and a slight bluish tint to his skin as a result of an accidental poisoning. His growth strategy for Centre included an ambitious endowment campaign, student recruitment and retention, an increase in faculty salaries, and the renovation of outdated buildings and construction of new ones. A strong football program was central to his vision. As college football spread across the country in the late 1880s and 1890s, increasing numbers of college officials recognized the sport's public relations value. This was especially true for a tiny school like Centre, which at the time of Ganfield's arrival had only seventy-eight students and was languishing in fiscal deficits. A first-rank football team would energize the campus, bring in new students and new revenues, [End Page 472] and put Centre on the map. Ganfield sought to make Centre what historian John Thelin calls a "booster college," that is, one that harnessed the energy of boosterism to stimulate growth. A winning football team aroused widespread passion and loyalty more quickly and effectively than anything else a college could do. He sought to emulate such schools as the University of Chicago, Notre Dame, and the University of Southern California, which were among the many institutions that had used football to spark growth.2

The second key player in the rise of Centre was Robert Myers, an alumnus of the class of 1907 who was then a science teacher...